Hintze Hall in 1924

Indexing Earth's wonders: a history of the Museum

6 January 2017

From wasps to whales, the Natural History Museum was built to catalogue the world's natural riches.

A new phase of development will build on the historic vision of its creators.

If you stand below the Museum's arched main entrance, you are at the door to a vault of knowledge.

The building is a labyrinth of scientific learning. Long corridors stretch left and right, and a light and lofty ceiling soars above you. The space is a testament to the passion, love, meticulous research and hard work of generations of scientists.

Richard Owen, the first superintendent of the Museum, intended it to be an index of the natural world.

Today, the Museum is a world-class research facility and a monument to Earth's biodiversity. Swelling collections, accommodating more than 80 million specimens, have been gathered from the bottom of the ocean, every continent and from other planets.

The Central Hall in 1902

Central Hall in 1902. The middle of the space has always been given over to the largest and most impressive specimens.

 

Now the building is being transformed to add a display of more than a dozen specimens in Hintze Hall, representing every aspect of the Museum's history and continuing work.

Owen's vision of an index museum remains at the heart of the redevelopment, and it will be a space that encapsulates the tremendous breadth and beauty of the natural world.

Moving home

When Owen became superintendent of the British Museum’s natural history department in 1856, it was the start of a grand future for the specimens.

In the early 1850s, these treasured collections of botany, zoology, geology and mineralogy were housed in cramped quarters in the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

Insects and taxidermy creatures were kept in hot basement rooms and hidden away in drawers as the collection outgrew its small allocated space.

Newly appointed to preside over the specimens, Owen dreamt of a museum built to match them in stature, with space for visitors to wander freely between them.

George the African elephant in the central hall

An African elephant arrived at the Musuem in 1907. He was later nicknamed George, and was obtained from the taxidermists Rowland Ward Ltd.

 

After months of fighting and persuasion, it was decided that the collection would have a grand new home. The specimens would form the basis of a great public resource: a catalogue of the natural world, carefully collated and curated in their own dedicated museum.

An index museum

Owen wanted his new museum to be a world away from the cramped and ramshackle space housing his collection in the British Museum.

The new institution would be devoted to life on Earth, from the smallest beetle to the most imposing dinosaur.

Owen envisioned that the central hall of the building would be dedicated to typical or important specimens from the different groups on display - ­animals, plants, minerals and fossils. For instance, an elephant would represent the mammal collection.

This layout was intended to help the public and provide an introduction and directory, or index, to the rest of the Museum.

This central space was so important that a suggestion was put forward to light it using gas in the evenings, for working people who could not visit it during the day.

The fish gallery in 1911

The Fish Gallery in 1911. The galleries were lit by electricity in the evenings from 1908.

 

A large series of galleries led off the central hall, providing in-depth information about each group of specimens.

Owen believed the British public had a right to have access to every species making up the natural world. Modern-day visitors expect to see as many specimens as possible, but Owen's idea of displaying everything the Museum owned faced some criticism in the 1850s.

Opponents claimed the public only needed to see a few selected specimens, leaving most in storage for study. 

Enriching the collections

Despite the opposition, Owen won the battle and the Natural History Museum finally opened in 1881. The building’s decorative and Romanesque style, reminiscent of medieval European abbeys, is the work of Alfred Waterhouse, a Quaker architect from the north of England.

It took nearly eight years to build, and moving the collections from the British Museum in Bloomsbury was a huge job.

Relocating the zoological specimens, which included huge whale bones and taxidermy mammals, took 394 trips by horse and cart spread over 97 days.

Owen was determined to make the Museum the world’s largest and finest institution dedicated to natural history.

Since then, the collections have continued to grow. Early in the Museum's life, it was realised that one collection could never be truly comprehensive, and efforts have since been focused on acquiring specimens of particular importance, according to defined research objectives.

A century of change

This unwavering focus on scientific importance has led to a collection of astonishing complexity and depth.

Diplodocus skeleton on display in the Central Hall

The Diplodocus skeleton on display in Hintze Hall. The dinosaur will soon be touring the country, replaced by a blue whale.

 

For more than 100 years, caring for the collections has gone hand in hand with research into the natural world.

The Museum has been expanding and developing since the day its wide front doors swung open for the first time.

The building's next transformation, due to be completed in summer 2017, stays true to Owen's vision of what a museum should be.

Hintze Hall is reimagined, with a new star exhibit taking pride of place.

The next chapter

A blue whale skeleton will be suspended from the ceiling, above visitors, seeming to plunge towards the front doors.

It is replacing the Diplodocus cast that has been standing guard over the front doors since 1979.

The whale, the largest known animal ever to have existed, will be a reminder of humanity's delicate relationship with the natural world, the vitality of conservation work and our responsibility to care for life on Earth.

An digital model of how the blue whale could look in Hintze Hall

A digital model showing how the blue whale could look in Hintze Hall

 

The breadth of the Museum's work will also be reflected in the hall's 10 arched display bays, running along the room, with five displays on each side.

All species, both extinct and extant, will have representatives as curators move new specimens into the space.

From mammals to minerals, they will introduce visitors to different aspects of the Museum's collection.

They have been chosen for the same reasons behind Owen's original index vision for the central hall, designed more than 130 years ago.

Selected specimens will act as a directory, introducing visitors to the wider collections, and will demonstrate that our actions can have both devastating and revolutionary effects on our planet. 

Find out more about the future of Hintze Hall.

A new Hintze Hall

Find out why we are redeveloping our central space.

The whale story

As the Museum prepares to move its blue whale specimen to Hintze Hall, discover how whales were at the heart of Richard Owen's original proposal for a museum of natural history in Britain.